The playoffs are a pressure cooker. Every moment of every game is massive, every little thing is magnified, and any mistake can cost a team their season. We know this, because for the next eight weeks, we’ll be told about it constantly.
In fact, it’s tempting to say that playoff pressure is a constant, something faced in equal measure by all 16 teams. But that’s nonsense. Not all circumstances are created equal, and some teams are absolutely under more pressure than others.
Every year, there are a few teams for whom just qualifying at all is enough to make the season a success, and any noise they can make from there is just a bonus. Then you’ve got the other end of the spectrum — the teams for whom the playoffs truly feel like a defining moment, the start of a do-or-die quest that will either end in ultimate success or total, irredeemable failure. They walk together in history forever, or they all walk together to the first bus out of town.
So how does it break down this year? Here’s a best guess at how much pressure each team is facing – counting down from least to most.
The Flyers are this year’s surprise team, one that was languishing in 12th place in the East back in January and then made a late push to sneak into the last wildcard spot on the season’s final weekend. GM Ron Hextall has the team in a surprisingly patient rebuild mode and didn’t bring in any reinforcements at the trade deadline, so just making the postseason at all means the season will be viewed a positive step forward.
Now they’ve got a matchup with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals, and go into the series as big underdogs. Could they pull off the upset? Sure they could – it’s closer than you think. But even if they’re swept, they won’t look at this season as anything but a success.
15. Florida Panthers
The Panthers are coming off a dream regular season — one that saw them making a big jump up the standings, winning the second division title in franchise history and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in four years. Along the way, they became the hockey world’s favorite story, packed with fun personalities and even the occasional celebrity cameo.
They’d no doubt love to keep that story going by winning their first playoff round in 20 years, and there’s a “strike while the iron is hot” vibe to their momentum right now. But while dropping what looks like a very winnable matchup with the Islanders would be a disappointment, it wouldn’t undo much of the goodwill they’ve built up over the course of a successful season.
The defending champs are playing for their legacy at this point. Last year’s Cup win boosted them into the “Wait, is this a dynasty?” discussion, and another title would make them a lock.
So yes, there’s unquestionably something on the line here. But even a first round exit would be easy enough to shrug off – remember, it’s already happened twice during the Hawks’ six-year run – and they’d come back next year with some extra rest and motivation. The Hawks didn’t get to where they are today by taking anything lightly. But this isn’t exactly do-or-die.
The Predators have largely flown under the radar this year; they were never considered part of the Central’s Big Three, but were rarely in much danger of missing the playoffs. Now they head into the postseason as an underdog, crossing over to the Pacific to face a Ducks team that everyone expects to go deep. That’s not to say that there’s no urgency here – Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber aren’t getting any younger, and the Predators will need to make their push into the league’s top tier eventually. But it’s hard to feel too much pressure when everyone has already written you off.